Hieronymus of Prague: a middle-age intellectual “of flesh and bone”

During the weekend 27th to 29th of May occurred commemoration festivities of 600 years since the burning of Hieronymus of Prague. After last year’s diverse and generous activities remembering martyrdom of Jan Hus it was rather a modest and narrowly focused program. The reasons are several. The story of Jan Hus seems to be more coherent and straightforward in its martyrdom-aspect. Also Hieronymus had to compete with this year’s exuberant celebrations of 700 years since the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was born. Despite of these facts it would be mistake not to take the forgotten “rebel” into account. It is the very marginalization of his memory in comparison to the memory of Jan Hus and Charles IV what makes the legacy of Hieronymus of Prague symptomatic and fruitful for contemporary thinking.

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The myth about a restless intellectual
Like in the case of Jan Hus, we don’t now exactly when Hieronymus was born, typically the date is referenced between the years 1378 and 1379. He was probably born and raised in the New Town, Prague. The social context of a big city explains his affiliation towards hedonistic and cosmopolitan lifestyle – which is particularly interesting in contrast with a calm and contemplative image of Jan Hus coming from the village of Husinec in Southern Bohemia.
In 1395-96 Hieronymus started Faculty of Arts. In the year 1398, 5 years after Hus, he earned the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Like Hus, he was among students with no possessions – that we can deduce from the university record from 1404. He was able to go to Oxford thanks to the scholarship for talented students. Then, after his studies at the Oxford University, he brought writings of controversial philosopher John Wycliffe to Prague. Later on he studies also at the University of Paris (there he earned his first master’s degree), the University of Cologne, and the University of Heidelberg.

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It is in this period when the myth of a restless intellectual arose. According to theologian Martin Chadima, Hieronymus was a “intellectual, whose opponents were barely able to oppose his argumentation and they were behind also regarding charisma, education and eloquence”. He is said to have been of a “restless spirit, deep mind and wandering thought” and to have been “spreading unrest, panic, admiration and hatred”. He had to escape from many places (including Paris, Cologne and Heidelberg) since there were threats of disciplination and punishment against him.

The one who risks his own skin
“Hieronymus would not sit in front of the television” said pastor Lenka Ridzoňová during her Saturday’s sermon. “He risks his own skin”, she added. Few hours before the sermon, the commemoration program began in front of the Hieronymus statue next to the New Town Hall of Prague at Karlvo náměstí by so called the “March of the Rebels”. The march was part of the official commemoration program. Within the march we could see a diverse set of symbols and references. People were waving typical Hussite flags with a red chalice on black, but also an international Roma flag and a flag of Tibet. Participants in historical costumes were holding maquettes of Hussite’s weapons, but also a banner with the piece of M. L. King quotation “I have a dream”. Some of them were dressed in T-shirts referencing to Václav Havel or to the Czech Pirate Party. Right in the head of ceremony three people were holding big transparent with a text “hatred is not the solution”. Two men with megaphones were promoting slogans: “Luther and Calvin your time will come again”, “Hieronymus – the son of the truth”, or “Petr, Pavel – Václav Havel”.
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We can see that within the frame of Czech historical memory, position of Hieronymus is not of the enviable ones. In comparison to another jubilee Charles IV who ensured his place in historical narrative of Czech by the vast material investment, the image of Hieronymus is rather ephemeral, loaded with a stigma of spontaneity, some kind of existential lightness. Today, he is being referred to as an agitator, activist, jokester, man enjoying life in its fullness. “If Hieronymus lived today, he would live at the Klinika”, said historian Peter Morée at the panel discussion dealing with a meaning of Hieronymus for today’s society.

While Hus was performing passionate and touching sermons for thousands (remember the scenes 1954 movie of Otakar Vávra or last year’s trilogy by Jiří Svoboda), Hieronymus was singing satiric songs in the streets, organizing parodic processes and demonstrations, spreading mocking messages. According to the charges uttered at the Konstanz council in 1414, he defecated on a wooden cross in the church of St. Jakub and he also led others to do similar actions. In contrast to Hus, Hieronymus was not ordained, which gave him certain freedom guaranteed by the neutrality of university disputations. Anyways, he became too nonconformist and he was summoned by the council just like Hus.
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Thoughtful rascal
Although Hieronymus was a skillful scholar and philosopher and he built his reformist ideas strictly on an academic argumentation, he is more known for his “jestership”. The red Phrygian cap, typical visual attribute of Hieronymus, refers to his philosophical education. At the same time it provokes by the reference to the institution of a jester. Jester is an intellectual with a right to say how the things really are, albeit at the price of not being taken seriously. A stark and relentless analysis made by a jester is tolerated because it is often considered harmless, as a mere bantering.

That is why the story of Hieronymus still resonates among some public. The story of Hus is a story of fight between good and evil, sacredness and profanity, destiny and indetermination. It is schematic, linear and based on simple binary oppositions. The story of Hieronymus, in contrast, is interwoven with unrest, anxiety, eccentric thrusts and slapsticks – and also with hopeless effort. “Hieronymus is a man of flesh and bone”, said Ridzoňová. The story of Hus, then, is idealistic, mobilizing, state-building – but at no cost human.

2 comments to “Hieronymus of Prague: a middle-age intellectual “of flesh and bone””

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  1. Thanks for your thoughtful essay on the Hieronymus commemoration. One question: what does it mean that “if Hieronymus lived today, he would live at the Klinika”? There seems to be some implicit knowledge that I am missing. Overall, we had similar experiences in Konstanz, Hieronymus being accentuated as a man of flesh and bone vis-a-vis Hus, the flawless superhero of the Bohemian reformation. This is also reflected in the different circumstances of their death. Hus seemed not only to have been well aware of the risk to his life, but at times even wanted to be martyred – at least he preferred that option to recanting. He was prepared to die for his truth. Hieronymus traveled to Konstanz to help Hus, but fled – like so many times in his life – after realizing that he couldn’t help him and that he put his own life in danger. However, fleeing he was captured and brought back to Konstanz, where he recanted the theses of Wycliffe and Hus (and his own). Only when he realized that this won’t save his life, he revoked his recantation. Hieronymus, as a man who was attached to life and reluctant to die for what he considered to be the truth is a much more human character than Hus. To this adds his often restless, frivolous and hedonistic life. It is precisely the fact that Hieronymus shows human weaknesses which makes him more suitable for identification, though less as an objects of admiration. As Jan Kalivoda, professor of history at Charles University and member of the board of the Hus museum told us, Hieronymus may have led a dubious life, but in the end he died like a philosopher. Whereas Hus is located in the Christian tradition of martyrdom, Hieronymus is put into the line of philosophical martyrs, going back to Socrates and Seneca. In contrast to Hus he was a philosopher, but more importantly a human. The contrast between Hus and Hieronymus appeared also in the sermon of his anniversary commemoration at the Luther Church, where Hus was likened to Jesus Christ, and Hieronymus to Petrus, who not only showed at times a human weakness of faith, but also denied being a follower of Jesus before the crucifixion.

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